We would like to suggest that we reintroduce the Catholic tradition of betrothal in order to distinguish it from what society today considers to be marriage engagement. A betrothal is similar to an engagement in that it is a promise of a future marriage. Like an engagement, it serves as a point at which decisions can begin to be made and commitments taken. One difference is that a betrothal implies a very serious and comprehensive discernment process has already been completed and much effort has been made to reduce the risk to either of the partners, that the marriage will not come about.
Betrothal has been recognized and governed by the Church since the 3rd Century, being considered as a type of binding contract. Canon Law (revised in 1983) still contains provisions for a formal betrothal (see Canon 1062) but it leaves the development of norms to national bishops’ conferences. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has chosen not to implement any norms governing the formal betrothal, which suggests any betrothal commitment would be only bind the couple to the degree the couple agrees between themselves.
Betrothal is also different from an engagement in that it clearly and preferably publicly witnesses to the fact that Christian marriage is linked to the ecclesial structure of the Church and to marriage as a Sacrament of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas calls a formal betrothal, a kind of sacramental that is connected to the Sacrament of Marriage (see Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Q. 43, a. 1, ad 6).
A betrothal ceremony serves to emphasize and so to remind the couple that they are preparing to enter an order in the Church, the “order of spouses” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1537). A betrothal ceremony would assists them in realizing their relationship is not a purely private affair. As members of a Church order they will have certain rights and responsibilities in terms of their marriage and the Church. Accepting marriage in the Catholic Church, while it is the only way to be validly married for Catholics, is also a free choice which commits the Church to the couple’s marriage, and commits the couple to responsibilities set by the Church.
While the Church has long provided for formal betrothal, admittedly, formal betrothal was no longer widely used in English speaking countries by the 19th century. Even so, an explicit ceremony for the Rite of Betrothal was included as an appendix in the in the mid 20th century, authoritative translation of the Rites into English (see The Roman Ritual by Father Phillip T. Weller). This ceremony is still used by some couples in the Extraordinary Form (EF) of the Latin Rite (sometimes colloquially referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass or TLM). While it would be fair to say use of the use of the ceremony is still uncommon, it is increasingly being used by Catholic couples who wish to take their marriage preparation seriously. One does not need to attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to request the betrothal rite, but it is more likely that a priest who performs the Extraordinary Form would be aware of its existence and would be prepared to perform it.
The betrothal ceremony can help to remind the couple that their future marriage will include the interests of the wider family, the interests of the Church and of society. It will clearly mark the end of their discernment and the beginning of preparing in earnest, for the many details involved in the wedding ceremony and the many more that come about in combining the lives of two people. As an ecclesial ceremony, it will help to remind them of the even greater urgency of spiritual and human preparation for their marriage in order to live it out in fidelity to their vocations and for the sanctification of their spouses and future children. Even if the rite of the extraordinary form ceremony is not used, a public profession of the couple’s reciprocal promise and recognition of the meaning of Christian marriage is highly recommended. What follows is the betrothan ceremony from Fr. Weller's translation of Roman Ritual.
A Betrothal Ceremony
Today there is no formal betrothal ceremony prescribed by the Church. However, Father Phillip T. Weller, in his masterful translation of the Roman Ritual in the 1940s, provided a ceremony. It was recommended that because betrothal is a prelude to the Sacrament of Matrimony, it is most fitting the ceremony be performed in a church at the steps leading to the altar. The following ceremony was taken from The Roman Ritual, Vol 1, translated by Phillip T. Weller (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), 583-593:
1. The priest (vested in surplice and white stole) with his assistants (vested in surplice) awaits the couple at the communion table. At hand are the stoup with holy water and the altar missal. As the man and woman come forward with the two witnesses they have chosen, the following antiphon and psalm may be sung on the eighth psalm tone:
To the Lord I will tender my promise: in the presence of all His people.
Unless the house be of the Lord's building, in vain do the builders labor.
Unless the Lord be the guard of the city, 'tis in vain the guard keeps his sentry.
It is futile that you rise before daybreak, to be astir in the midst of darkness,
Ye that eat the bread of hard labor; for He deals bountifully to His beloved while they are sleeping.
Behold, offspring result from God's giving, a fruitful womb the regard of His blessing.
Like arrows in the hand of the warrior, are children begotten of a youthful father.
Happy the man who has filled therewith his quiver; they shall uphold him in contending at the gate with his rival.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and forever, through endless ages. Amen.
To the Lord I will tender my promise: in the presence of all His people.
2. The priest now addresses them:
Beloved of Christ: It is in the dispensation of Divine Providence that you are called to the holy vocation of marriage. For this reason, you present yourselves today before Christ and His Church, before His sacred minister and the devout people of God, to ratify in solemn manner the engagement bespoken between you. At the same time you entreat the blessing of the Church upon your proposal, as well as the earnest supplications of the faithful here present, since you fully realize that what has been inspired and guided by the will of your heavenly Father requires equally His grace to be brought to a happy fulfillment. We are confident that you have given serious and prayerful deliberation to your pledge of wedlock; moreover, that you have sought counsel from the superiors whom God has placed over you. In the time that intervenes, you will prepare for the sacrament of matrimony by a period of virtuous courtship, so that when the happy and blessed day arrives for you to give yourselves irrevocably to each other, you will have laid a sound spiritual foundation for long years of godly prosperity on earth and eventual blessedness together in the life to come. May the union you purpose one day to consummate as man and wife be found worthy to be in all truth a sacramental image and reality of the union of Christ and His beloved Bride, the Church. This grant, thou Who livest and reignest, God, forever and evermore.
3. The priest now bids the couple to join their right hands, while they repeat after him the following:
The man first:
In the name of our Lord, I, N.N., promise that I will one day take thee, N.N., as my wife, according to the ordinances of God and holy Church. I will love thee even as myself. I will keep faith and loyalty to thee, and so in thine necessities aid and comfort thee; which things and all that a man ought to do unto his espoused I promise to do unto thee and to keep by the faith that is in me.
Then the woman:
In the name of our Lord, I, N.N., in the form and manner wherein thou hast promised thyself unto me, do declare and affirm that I will one day bind and oblige myself unto thee, and will take thee, N.N. as my husband. And all that thou hast pledged unto me I promise to do and keep unto thee, by the faith that is in me.
4. Then the priest takes the two ends of his stole and in the form of a cross places them over the clasped hands of the couple. Holding the stole in place with his left hand, he says:
I bear witness of your solemn proposal and I declare you betrothed. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. As he pronounces the last words, he sprinkles them with holy water in the form of a cross.
5. Thereupon he blesses the engagement ring:
V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini. V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram. R. Who made heaven and earth.
V. Domine, exaudi orationem meam. V. O, Lord, hear my prayer.
R. Et clamor meus ad te veniat. R. And let my cry come unto Thee.
V. Dominus vobiscum. V. The Lord be with you.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo. R. And with thy spirit.
Oremus: Omnipotent Deus, creator et conservator humani generis, ac largitor aeternae salutis, permitte digneris Spiritum sanctum Paraclitum super hunc annulum. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, Filium tuum: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.
Let us pray: O God Almighty, Creator and preserver of the human race, and the Giver of everlasting salvation, deign to allow the Holy Spirit, the Consoler to come with His blessing upon this ring. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit God, for endless ages.
He sprinkles the ring with holy water.
6. The man takes the ring and places it first on the index finger of the left hand of the woman, saying: In the name of the Father, (then on the middle finger, adding): and of the Son; (finally placing and leaving it on the ring finger, he concludes): and of the Holy Spirit.
7. The priest opens the missal at the beginning of the Canon, and presents the page imprinted with the crucifixion to be kissed first by the man and then by the woman.
8. If Mass does not follow (or even if Mass is to follow, if he deems it opportune), the priest may read the following passages from Sacred Scripture:
Tobias said: I will not eat nor drink here this day, unless thou first grant me my petition, and promise to give me Sara thy daughter… The angel said to Raguel: Be not afraid to give her to this man, for to him who feareth God, is thy daughter due to be his wife; therefore another could not have her… And Raguel taking the right hand of his daughter, he gave it unto the right hand of Tobias, saying: The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you, and may He join you together, and fulfill His blessing in you. And taking paper they made a writing of the marriage. And afterwards they made merry, blessing God… Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day; because for these three nights we are joined to God; and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are children of saints, and must not be joined together like heathens that know not God. So they both arose, and prayed earnestly both together that health might be given them.
R. Thanks be to God.
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing. If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you. In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; as I also have kept my Father's commandments, and do abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy be in you, and your joy may be filled. This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.
R. Praise be to thee, O Christ!
9. Lastly, the priest extends his hands over the heads of the couple and says:
May God bless your bodies and your souls. May He shed His blessing upon you as He blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. May the hand of the Lord be upon you, may He send His holy Angel to guard you all the days of your life. Amen. Go in peace!